Monday, November 29, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Sea and Cake

Shake off the post-turkey doldrums with a gently persuasive rock show by the estimable Sea and Cake.  The indie heroes return to Chicago to play Lincoln Hall tonight.

The evening opens with the catchy folk-pop of fellow hometown act Brighton, MA.

My Flavorpill preview is here.  Meanwhile, here's a representative sample from the Sea and Cake's latest album:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Now that my pumpkin, banana and cranberry breads are ready -- by which I mean bought and paid for -- I take a moment to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for.

And in the spirit of the season, enjoy this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One ring to rule them all

I think my hand is in that photo somewhere, but let's face it, this snapshot is all about the Chicago Blackhawks championship ring I'm wearing. 

My dad's college roommate spent over forty years as the Blackhawks' public address announcer and still works for the team. In gratitude for his decades of service, the team presented him with the same commemorative jewelry they gave the players after they won the Stanley Cup last June.

I ran into our friend at a charity function the other night. (At least I think it was him; I could hardly see past the glare of his bling.) Being a sport, he let me check it out.

It's the biggest, heaviest ring I've ever put on, assuming it isn't a bracelet. He tells me it weighs over a pound and I'm pretty sure he isn't kidding. This thing is a golf ball-sized cluster of diamonds and precious metal. The above flashless BlackBerry photo doesn't do it justice; it sparkles like Bobby Hull in the NHL constellation of stars. 

It's also engraved with a picture of the Stanley Cup, our friend's name and the years the Hawks won the title. All in all, an excellent keepsake from a thrilling championship season.

Go Hawks.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Seagull

The Goodman Theatre's well-received new production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull closes this weekend, but you still have a few more chances to see it.  (Wasn't it nice of the Chicago Bears to play on Thursday evening and open up your Sunday afternoon like that?)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lapti Nek

A friend emailed me:

Sy Snootles and the whole Max Rebo band occupy a very important historical place. Star Wars was awesome; Empire was awesome; the opening scenes of Jedi were awesome, where the droids and later Luke establish themselves at Jabba's. And then came the Rebo band. And then came the rest of Jedi, which mostly rehashed earlier ideas in an unawesome way (Luke going back to Dagobah, the second Death Star). And then came the prequels.

When future historians look back and try to tease out the first flaw that would go on to doom the whole enterprise, I think blame will fall on a flamboyant strange-lipped singer and a blue elephantine keyboardist.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Also: this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taking the purple to Pasaden--, uh, down Sheridan Road

Like Northwestern University? The University of Illinois? College football? Wrigley Field?

Then click here.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Do you like circus stunts?  Gymnastics?  Being blown away by highly polished stage shows?

Last night I caught Traces, a hip, downtown version of Cirque du Soleil. Think streetwise twentysomethings, nonchalant cool, skateboards and basketballs, laid-back clothes, music reminiscent of Radiohead and Morcheeba, live camera feeds, piano and guitar, chalk lines and graffiti, and great-looking, deeply impressive performers who create a personal rapport with the audience. A more accessible, less otherworldly presentation than Cirque, and the better for it.

Oh, and did I mention the eye-popping acrobatics?

Previews? My Flavorpill preview is here.  

Reviews? The Chicago Tribune gives it four out of four stars, Time Out Chicago gives it five out of five stars, and the Chicago Sun-Times says "highly recommended."

I rarely gush, but this show is terrific. It didn't just hold my interest; I was rapt, as was everyone else, by the dazzling displays of skill.  It grabs you by the lapels and you can't look away. Plus it sounds great.

The choreography is lively, and also effective on a macro level: the big set pieces are nicely leavened with quieter musical, comedic and dance breaks, and everything keeps moving.

Check it out.

Traces plays Chicago through December 19 January 1 (hot shows get extended) then heads to Los Angeles and elsewhere on its national tour.  More information is here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I know, it's only rock and roll...

...but I like it.

As you've probably heard, indestructible Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has penned an autobiography in which he somewhat incredibly claims to remember the last forty years.  Keith's book has been widely hailed as a gimlet-eyed recollection of a remarkable ride, though apparently he gathered few stories about Jerry Moss.

By coincidence, another celebration of the Stones resumes here in Chicago as the Signal Ensemble Theatre brings back Aftermath, its musical biography of founding guitarist Brian Jones. The play drew raves and national attention during its short, incendiary run at the Raven Theater in Rogers Park last spring. Unfortunately, key cast members had other commitments that prevented its extension.

Signal has since opened its own theater space in the North Center neighborhood, where they've just reassembled the original cast for another run. I caught the opening the first time around and found it punchy and entertaining. (To my surprise, the show was stolen by a guy playing George Harrison.)

My Flavorpill preview of Aftermath is here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Today's instructions

  1. Stop by Google Maps.
  2. Click on Get Directions.
  3. Request directions from China to Japan.
  4. Read step #42.
  5. Laugh and move on.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Best of the Westchester

I recently happened to be in New York City on the same weekend that the 14th annual Westchester Crossword Tournament was taking place, so I caught a Metro-North train from Grand Central Station up to Pleasantville to check it out.

I've been to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn (huge, national, packed with puzzle pros, hosted by Will Shortz) and the Chicago crossword tournament (small, unassuming, local, charming). Westchester was a hybrid of the two (small, unassuming, local, charming, packed with puzzle pros, hosted by Will Shortz).

There were maybe 75 or 100 participants, compared to the over 600 who enter the big national tournament, in a large room at a local church. Upon arrival many people enjoyed coffee and desserts provided by the evening's co-hosts, the friendly staff of the Pleasantville Fund for Learning. Will Shortz provides advance NYT puzzles to crossword tournaments that raise money for charity, and the Fund is the Westchester beneficiary.

Speaking of the venue, as wholesome and vaguely uplifting as it was to gather in a church, this was the last year the tournament will take place there. Will Shortz -- who is such a table tennis enthusiast that it would not be entirely inaccurate to describe him as "table tennis player Will Shortz, who moonlights as editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle" -- is about to open a table tennis club in a building he recently bought in downtown Pleasantville. Next year's Westchester tournament will take place there, which is kind of awesome, and rent-free to boot. I asked Will whether people would be sitting at Ping-Pong tables next year to solve their crosswords, and he said no.

Learning that I was at the sayonara go-round at the church made me feel a simpatico spirit with the people who played in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament during its 30-year run in Stamford, Connecticut. Hundreds of newbie moths like myself were attracted to the flame by the Wordplay movie a few years ago, and the spike in numbers caused the tournament to outgrow its Connecticut hotel and move to Brooklyn.

New York being New York, teeming as it is with crossword cognoscenti, there were plenty of noteworthy puzzle people in attendance. For example, I grabbed a seat next to Ben Pall, a friendly fellow from Bergen County, N.J.  He broke a record last November when, at age 14, he became the youngest person to publish a crossword in the New York Times. His puzzle was good too. (To clarify, I sat next to Ben's mom, presumably at least in part because he is still too young to drive from New Jersey to New York.)

This being Will Shortz's backyard, there were also several dozen New York Times crossword writers in attendance serving as volunteer tournament aides and judges. Having attending a few Brooklyn weekends, I spotted some familiar faces whose names are known to regular NYT solvers, including Fred Piscop, Patrick Blindauer, and Patrick Merrell. Will Shortz's inner circle was also in the house: correspondence manager Paula Gamache, puzzle whisperer Frank Longo, and ace technician Ellen Ripstein.

Because the tournament was a small local event with few bragging rights and no prize money at stake, Will dispensed with the elaborate scoring system familiar to ACPT regulars. In Westchester, as in Chicago, the tournament consisted of three opening rounds in which players solved the following week's Monday through Wednesday New York Times crosswords. The fastest correct solver of each puzzle would become a finalist, and in turn race each other through the following Thursday's puzzle. Three of the four tournament puzzle constructors were in attendance.

I finished roughly 160th at both ACPTs I attended, which is respectable but hardly amazing, and I knew there were so many strong players at Westchester that I had little chance to be a finalist. What I didn't stop to consider was that there was a fastest-rookie trophy on the line. This is where I made a rookie mistake, in both senses.

Before the tournament started I was chatting with some friends, lost track of time, and turned around to see the event was about to begin, so I hastily grabbed the only open seat in view. The Palls were seated on my left, and on my right was Bob Mackey, a ridiculously fast puzzle solver.

Bob is a delightful guy, but in hindsight I can't help but wonder whether the seat next to him was open for a reason. He blazed through the puzzles so fast that it got in my head a little. I wasn't looking at his paper, but I'd see him raise his hand and turn in each puzzle when I was only halfway done. This was slightly unnerving as I've grown accustomed to finishing before most of the people around me, and he had me beaten every time by a country mile.

Will Shortz announced that the third puzzle of the tournament would determine the winners of various awards (the rookie division, plus junior and senior age categories). I was seated with my back to most of the room, so by the time that puzzle rolled around, I'd started to feel as if there were 100 savants like Bob in the room, and bringing up the rear, me.

This set the stage for my rookie mistake: failing to stop and consider that for the only trophy I had a chance of winning, I was not likely playing against the super-speedsters like Bob. Although I'm reasonably fast myself, I raced so frantically through the trophy puzzle that I didn't notice there were still two blank squares on the otherwise correct grid I turned in. Had I noticed the omissions I would have put in the correct letters, but I was rushing so quickly that I didn't realize the puzzle was incomplete.

This stupid blunder cost me rookie of the year honors, which go to the first correct puzzle submitted by a new participant. 2001 ACPT champion and tournament judge Ellen Ripstein later told me that I was three and a half minutes faster than the winner of the rookie title, but my two blank squares disqualified me. To put this in perspective, I recently solved an entire Monday NYT crossword in under three minutes.

Now I know why no one wants the stall next to Tiger Woods at the driving range. Bob won the tournament, by the way.

I feel like shaking my fist and saying "Mackey!", but it's not Bob's fault I failed to keep mind over matter and overreacted to his impressive performance, so: (shakes fist) Bass!

I did, however, get an excellent consolation prize when Will Shortz gave me the award for having traveled the furthest to attend the tournament. This was perhaps not completely accurate in that I'd come to New York primarily to attend the New Yorker Festival, but as I'd flown in from Chicago that morning, I felt within my rights to accept the honor. In classic Shortz style, Will also presented an award to the person who'd traveled the shortest distance: a lady who lived across the street.

Award winners were invited to take their pick from a table full of puzzle books, games, dictionaries and the like. I grabbed a copy of "Will Shortz Presents Puzzle-A-Day KenKen," featuring the sudoku-style logic puzzle that shot to prominence a few years ago when Will started running it every day in the New York Times. After the tournament there were plenty of prizes left over and all were invited to take one home.

As at Brooklyn and Chicago, though, the Westchester tournament wasn't so much about competing or winning as it was about camaraderie, warmth, and the relatively novel experience of having crosswords become a group activity and social conduit rather than the solitary armchair pursuit they usually are. It's all about the people.

The folks who come out for crossword events are -- without a single exception I've met, at least -- bright, friendly, curious, involved, literate, accomplished people. They all have stories to tell, plus there's the comparing notes on puzzles in general. Every time I leave a crossword tournament I think to myself, that would have been just as much fun without any puzzles.

It wasn't all about crosswords either. Will Shortz is also the NPR puzzlemaster and between rounds he invited the room to play some casual brain teasers. Not surprisingly, everyone was up for it, and Will presented all kinds of word games ranging from fairly straightforward to quite challenging. I write the occasional puzzle for Will to use on Weekend Edition Sunday so I felt right at home.

I won't repeat the puzzles Will gave us because he's been using some of them on the radio, but I will share the following. At one point, an attractive young Indian woman solved a word puzzle. Will asked her name, which was Usha. She spelled it for him: U-S-H-A.

Immediately wheels started turning in this room full of crossword constructors, and a few people chuckled, because as Will explained, her name happens to be perfect for a crossword puzzle. Short names that begin and end with vowels (ETTA, ELLA, ARTE, AIDA) or rather short words like that in general (ANTE, ERA, ARIA, IRE) are usually needed to complete a grid, so they're disproportionately represented in crosswords.

Will asked Usha what she did for a living. I forget her reply, but it was a brainy, anonymous-type job like chemist or schoolteacher. You could feel the mild disappointment in the room that Usha was not a Tony-winning composer or a former Secretary of Agriculture. Will asked another open-ended question or two, clearly hoping to learn that she had discovered an element or won the New York City Marathon. Unfortunately, her replies suggested a life of gentle obscurity.

As Will struggled to find grounds to add Usha's name to the crossword lexicon, everyone was lost in thought and there was a short lull. I couldn't resist breaking the silence by asking from across the room, "Would you be willing to murder a celebrity?"

If you live in greater New York City and you like crossword puzzles, then by all means visit Brooklyn in March for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but don't overlook the less prominent, similarly enjoyable Westchester version. It will only get better next year with the intriguing possibility of a crossword-table tennis biathlon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's all about editing

Nitpicking yesterday's Chicago Tribune sports section:

1. A photo caption declares that with six victories, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Marty Turco is tied for the NHL lead, but the accompanying article says he's tied for second in the league.

2. Matt Bowen's column is entitled "Proper use of week off key." If anything is off key it's this ambiguous headline about the Bears' bye week.

3. A story fails to correct NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick's reference to auto racing as a "sport."

Things we wish we wrote

Sometimes you awake with a start at 5 a.m. for no particular reason and wander over to the computer to check your email, then you're on Facebook, then you're surfing around and you come across something great like this.

Monday, November 1, 2010

America begs to differ

After being knocked out of yesterday's game with a chin gash that required 10 stitches, Brett Favre assured reporters he'd be ready to play on Sunday:

"I'm fine. Nobody knows my body like me. There's plenty of times I should have been knocked out but I wasn't. So I think I'll be all right."

Actually, Brett, at this point, everybody knows your body like you.